In January 2016, the Rev. Cynthia Meyer told her United Methodist Church congregation she felt “called by God to be open and honest” about who she is: “a woman who loves, and shares her life with, another woman.”
Like many things — theological beliefs, worships styles, forms of baptism, and preferred interpretations of the Bible — Christians are divided when it comes to which social justice issues, culture wars, and current events are worth supporting and condemning or even talking about.
Followers of Christ can be against gay marriage or for it, Democrat or Republican, a pacifist or a soldier, a vegan or a meat-eater, an animal rights advocate or a hunter — Christians constantly contradict one another, and that’s OK.
The rising number of people choosing “nothing in particular,“ a subset of the "unaffiliated” label, has raised hackles across the theo-political spectrum, from some fundamentalist evangelicals decrying the de-Christianizing of the nation to more mainline Protestant handwringing over the loss of current and future members from already-struggling denominations.
The problem with this range of views (as far as I’ve read) is that, while certainly broad, it’s pretty shallow. There’s nuance to the “nones.” I can say this with confidence as someone who has drifted across the borders of that category once or twice or every other day. While there are certainly those in the group who don’t care about religion, there are also those with complicated feelings. These are people who still see their lives, maybe all life around them, as uniquely religious. Many have even done the work to interpret such complicated feelings, which is no small task.
The recently released Pew Research Center Report has revealed that Christianity within the United States is on the decline. Christians are freaking out and the fear mongering has begun — many seeing it as an apocalyptic sign of the moral downfall of our secular society coinciding with a theological weakening caused by “liberalism.”
Everyone seems to have an explanation of the data, and among Christians, the infighting has already begun, with most denominations rationalizing their growth, decline, or stagnancy by offering the same explanation: We’re theologically sound and remaining faithful to God while everyone else is getting it wrong.
What Christians must understand — and accept — about these statistics is that religious data about a country doesn’t accurately reflect its corporate actions pertaining to following Christ.
Denominations proliferate in Korea, Rev. Lee said, because church leaders have failed to die to themselves. People are concerned about recognition and their reputation, taking the glory for themselves, instead of for God. And Rev. Lee identified income inequality in South Korea as one of its greatest problems. Again, it calls for dying to the idol of wealth, and putting God’s love, along with serving one another, at the center.
The expected ecumenical agenda of economic justice, peace, protection of God’s creation came before the Jeju Forum in clear and forceful ways. Agnes Abuom, from Kenya, who is Moderator of the WCC Central Committee, said we are slaves to the larger economic and political systems; that’s another way in which we have to die to ourselves, echoing words from the Rev. Lee’s sermon.
From the Pacific islands, Rev. Male’ma Puloka shared how only 0.03 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced by the islands in her region, but they are they ones directly experiencing the devastating effects of climate change. What more can be done by the churches to combat global warming and defend the integrity of God’s creation?
We also began looking at global economic inequality. The facts are these: the top 20 percent of the world’s people control 83 percent of the world’s wealth. The next 20 percent control 11 percent of global wealth. That leaves the bottom 60 percent of the world’s population with only 6 percent of the world’s economic wealth. What can the churches do in the face of such severe global injustice?
Beneath this some voiced the cry for hope. Facing such stark challenges of injustice requires a foundation of spirituality and prayer that can inspire our Christian witness.
At a synagogue in Charleston, S.C., more than 20 years ago, teenager Rachel Nussbaum began wrapping tefillin — two black boxes attached to leather straps that Jewish men wear as they pray.
To the older Jewish men gathered for morning prayers, the sight of a woman decked out like a man at prayer was shocking. Many didn’t know what to make of Nussbaum’s brazen willingness to break with tradition.
Now 38, and a rabbi, Nussbaum leads The Kavana Cooperative, a growing Jewish prayer community in Seattle that has much in common with a synagogue but doesn’t call itself one.
Like the tefillin-wrapping teenage Nussbaum, Kavana prides itself on a reputation for doing Judaism its own way.
Instead of promoting Christ, Christians often promote …
their spiritual practices
their specific type of baptism
their required form of communion
their style of sermon
their definition of salvation
their philosophy of evangelism
their form of ministry
their brand of worship
their interpretation of Revelation
their interpretation of the Bible
their favorite leadership model
their social customs
their laws, rules, and regulations
their political beliefs
their moral values
Imagine if Christians introduced people to their God instead of their religion.
There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and there’s no such thing as perfect Christianity.
They don’t exist. One of the biggest lies Satan can tell you is that perfect spirituality can be achieved — it can’t.
There’s no perfect denomination.
There’s no perfect church.
There’s no perfect congregation size.
There’s no perfect style of worship.
There’s no perfect theology.
There’s no perfect children’s ministry curriculum.
There’s no perfect youth ministry philosophy.
There’s no perfect sermon formula.
There’s no perfect service sequence.
There’s no perfect leadership structure.
There’s no perfect interpretation of the Bible.
There’s no perfect strategy for evangelism.
Unfortunately, the idea of attaining perfect faith is perpetuated throughout Christendom. If you only attend this church more, pray more, tithe more, forgive more, sacrifice more, and ultimately do this or that just a little bit more — then you will attain blissful happiness, perfect harmony, divine communion with God, and a happily ever after eternity.
I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!
Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!
Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!
Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!
As the pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on — almost thoughtlessly — to our invitation cards and mailings as well.
It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: “All Are Welcome!”
And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, singles, 20-somethings — at times the church has been downright discriminatory.
A friend of mine once told me he was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches. They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay, the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."
Thanks be to God, my friend didn't give up his search or lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.
But too many of us have these stories: The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.
Fortunately, many churches became aware of the way they had been contradicting the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).
As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."
Faith is a journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress filled with mistakes, learning, humble interactions, and life-changing events. Here are a few things I would do differently if I could go back and start over:
1. I wouldn't worry about having the right answers.
There’s a misconception that the Bible is the Ultimate Answer Book and Christianity is a divine encyclopedia presenting the solutions to life’s biggest questions. In reality, the Christian faith is about a relationship with Christ instead of an academic collection of right or wrong doctrines.
Rather than wasting time, energy, and resources on superficial theological issues — I would focus more of getting to know Jesus. Never let a desire for “being right” obstruct your love for Christ.
I was privileged to attend the ordination of a friend recently. For the first time, Michelle got to say the blessing over the bread, to break the bread and to give it to all of us with her hands.
Many tears, much joy.
As she handed me a small piece of the bigger loaf, I was reminded of how we, like the communion bread, are in the hands of others for so much of our lives. And how religion can be a thing of so much good or so much pain, depending upon whose hands it is in.
In the right hands, it’s a pathway to the divine. In the wrong hands …
It’s important that we always differentiate between religion and God. The two are distinct. God is always much bigger than any and all of our religions.
The quaint Pillar Church sits directly across the street from Hope College in Holland, Mich. — the first congregation established by a wave of Dutch immigrants to the area. When I enrolled at Hope in 1963, all I knew was that virtually no students went to Pillar Church.
A half century later, the story of Pillar Church tells a much larger narrative of the long and arduous journey toward authentic Christian unity.
Pillar Church and Hope College were both founded as part of the Reformed Church in America, a denomination formed by Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam (we now call it New York City) in 1628. A later wave of Dutch immigrants settled in the Midwest, particularly western Michigan. Some of them broke away and established the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1857.
From its founding, Pillar Church had been a member of the RCA. But in 1882, a group siding with the emerging CRC seized the church building, locked its doors with chains, and, grasping axe handles, defended it against their fellow congregants. From then on, Pillar Church was a CRC congregation, and it became essentially foreign territory to those of us at the RCA-affiliated school across the street.
One would think that sharply defined theological differences among Reformed Protestants — who are famous for their theological exactitude — would have been the cause of such a dramatic intra-ethnic split. But no.
Last May, a family in our church offered the use of their garage and driveway for a weekend yard sale. Their entire suburb holds a three-day sale, and our youth group participated to raise some money.
Rain and heat were in the weekend forecast, so church members offered to let us use their collapsible tents as shelter for the clothing and glassware, bicycles, and bobbleheads that had been donated for sale. You’ve probably seen such tents. They somehow fit into small carrying pouches — thank God for engineers! — and unfold into spacious tents.
It took six of us to stretch each tent all the way open. Each of us grabbed a leg and started pulling until the metal frame finally snapped into place and locked. The toughest part was getting the frame to expand that last inch or so to make it lock.
By the time we had all of the tents assembled, we were soaked with sweat. Stretching a tent to its limit is hard work!
It’s also a popular metaphor these days.
Christianity consists of thousands of tribes, cliques, and communities — each with different theologies, traditions, and doctrinal beliefs. Within a Westernized society obsessed with celebrity, entertainment, popularity, conflict, and money, it can be easy for Christian groups and communities to clash with each other.
For the modern church, much of its recent legacy has involved conflict, division, and controversy. Christians have developed a love-hate relationship with theologians, pastors, and church leaders — and it’s dividing the church.
Many Christians see their faith journeys as series of either/or situations and decisions — this is bad. Because as much as we want things to be clear, concise, and black-and-white, reality is complex and messy.
Pride, greed, hatred, bitterness, fear, and ignorance often cause Christians to promote distrust instead of unity — but what if Christians were more patient, graceful, and forgiving of each other?
I grew up with music in my life. At first, it was a combination of my dad’s Willie Nelson and Ray Charles with my mom’s old southern Gospel hymns. I’d sit under the piano, feeling the vibrations as she played “Blessed Assurance,” and then lie on the floor in front of the speakers as Ike and Tina belted out “Proud Mary.”
And then I discovered my own music, in the form of rock. Eventually, I sang lead in several hard rock bands around Dallas hitting all the local hot spots and singing until I was hoarse and exhausted. It was during my decade away from church that I did most of this, but I didn’t realize until recently that, despite the pretense of countercultural rebellion the music offered, it actually gave me some of the same things I experienced as part of organized religion.
Of course, only the most uneducated would think of rock music as some monolithic think that was barely held together by the pursuit of sex, drugs, and fame. There were rules. There were codes. And my lord, there were categories.
Any time you asked a band what style they were, inevitably they’d sigh and equivocate, finally listing off a handful of bands they most certainly were not like. No one wanted to be categorized, and yet we were more than ready to label all others and fit them in to their neat little musical denominations.
As we near the March 25 arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, it can feel as though men have the monopoly on religious activism in America. After all, 38 protestant theologians signed on to an amicus brief suggesting that a business owner’s religious beliefs should dictate the consciences and actions of female employees – none of those theologians were women.
A glance at the past, present, and future of women’s leadership in American religious life, however, shows this simply is not true. Today, as throughout American history, women have fought for their voice in religion, the opportunity to express their faith, and to obtain the same access to religious leadership as their brothers. Just as in other areas of work and life, creating opportunities for women to increase their hand in religious leadership is vital to greater equality and new perspectives in theology, moral activism, and spirituality.
Despite the increase in women in clergy careers over the last 40 years, it has been an uphill battle for women who have changed hearts, minds, and traditions for career opportunities as clergy and religious leaders in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Issues around the “ stained glass ceiling” in clergy careers can range from discouraging congregants who are biased against women clergy to institutional inequalities: men still outnumber women in clergy positions in America, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20.5 percent of self-described clergy were women in 2012. In certain religious traditions — the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox Judaism, for example — women cannot be ordained as clergy or prayer leaders. It is also very rare to find Muslim women leading mixed-gender services.
Everywhere we turn, someone or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost, to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?
From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the footsteps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.
Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances, and denominational commitments (among other things), as if these things take precedence over following Jesus.
One sort of Christian believes taking Eucharist weekly saves her. Another Christian believes his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord saves him. Still another looks to his Baptism. Another to her participation in the body of Christ. One to his repentance. And another to her care for the sick, the hungry, the prisoner, and the poor.
We elevate one belief or practice over another, then divide ourselves as Christ followers by the priority we set when, in fact, all of these are taught as saving by Christ, who alone is our salvation.
Christ saves me, not the accuracy and purity of my beliefs. Christ saves me, not my works. Christ saves me, not the measure of my adherence to a doctrine or practice.
When all is said and done, many Christians tend to look to their habits, their faith, and their perseverance when it comes to salvation rather than to the work, belief, and faithfulness of Christ in us, over us, under us, and through us.
Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?
My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.
As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.
If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.
It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.
The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?